One way or another, the end is near. And business is booming. Utah is ground zero for disaster ‘preppers’ and the industry that profits from them.
Burnetta Knudsen, a single mother of two and business owner, has driven 200 miles to learn how to prepare for catastrophe. The petite blonde is obviously a bit overwhelmed as she enters Utah Valley University’s Event Center. The stark concrete basketball arena is hosting the Great Utah Family Preparedness Expo. About 500 people are milling among booths offering courses in wilderness and urban survival, long-term food storage, herbal medicine, gold-and-gem investment and emergency midwifery. Vendors are offering “bug-out” kits, solar ovens, fighting knives, tasers, massive water tanks, military-quality tents and below-ground greenhouses.
“I’m just learning about prepping,” says Knudsen as she examines a selection of arcane medicinal herbs. “I need all the information I can get in my little head.”
On a continuum that begins with kits to get by for a few days without public utilities to long-term food storage and preparing for a full-on End of Days scenario, Knudsen falls in the moderate range. “I’m just starting with the basics. I’m worried about natural disasters and pandemics.” A little farther out, she plans to add firearms training.
“I’m not scared, I just want to be prepared. Am I worried about a Zombie Apocalypse? Nope,” she says smiling. “I’m a pretty down-to-earth girl.”
But it’s not just savvy Mormon moms who are joining the ranks of preppers. Mike Butler, 24, is shopping for bug-out supplies at an Emergency Essentials store in Murray. The muscular, tattooed, construction worker is looking at a Trekker II 72-hour food pack to keep in his car trunk. It will allow him and his girlfriend to escape into the boonies.
“If everything goes to hell for real, it’s better to be prepared,” Butler says. So far, he’s got the weapons end covered with a AR-15 assault rifle and a .45 cal. pistol. “I want to be able to travel off the radar with tactical gear and fighting skills. There’s been times in history when things have gotten bad. My military buddies are telling me it’s coming.”
Money to be made
Utah has become a haven not only for preppers, but for businesses that cater to them—a quick count finds at least 100 companies dealing specifically in emergency preparation and survival goods and services. That’s not counting gun stores and recreational outlets like REI and Cabela’s that sell freeze-dried food, cooking, shelter, navigation equipment and weaponry that would come in handy in a civil meltdown.
“A lot of national manufacturers are headquartered here,” says Bill Moon, a salesman for Salt Lake-based Wise Company, which offers compact food packages that have a 25-year shelf life. “We’re growing rapidly.”
Moon and others in the industry give credit to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for its tradition of preaching preparation for hard times. It’s nearly a Mormon cultural imperative to stock a two-year supply of food and many Utah homes have storage rooms built in. “I link it back to the LDS church and its strong counsel to be prepared,” Moon says. “Lately, with Katrina and the flooding in Colorado, we’ve seen what a good idea that is. Who would have thought that could have happened?”
In fact, Wise Company’s products are endorsed by Mormon entertainment icon Marie Osmond and, Moon says, you’ll soon be seeing the company’s products in Kmart and Bed, Bath & Beyond. Wise also is a sponsor of the reality TV show Doomsday Preppers.
“Utah seems to have more of a market per capita than other states,” says Tim Pedersen, a preparedness consultant at Orem-based Emergency Essentials, which sends out 100,000 catalogs a month in addition to its extensive website. “But our strongest business [in total revenue] is out of state.”
“Prepping, whatever you want to call it, has been around for centuries. It used to be a rural thing, now it’s moving into urban environments,” he says. “Emergency Essentials is a preparedness supermarket—we carry much more than food. We try to make sure we have something for everyone.” They even offer survival bundles for pets.
The prepper business, whether it’s aimed at weathering an electrical outage or nuclear holocaust, is booming.
Emergency Essentials began in 1987 to provide powdered milk for home storage, but has expanded to meet the survivalist twist to prepping. “It used to be solely about families preparing to shelter in place,” Pedersen says. “Survivalists are about being able to defend yourself in a lawless land. Often it’s about getting to a place where you can defend yourself.”
The question of course is why are so many people adopting a lifestyle premised on predictions of civil collapse?
“It’s the unrest our customers are feeling,” says Pedersen. “More and more, there’s a mindset of ‘I have to do something in case a disaster happens.’”
At the Great Utah Family Preparedness Expo it isn’t hard to find experts to offer any number of unsettling reasons for the urgency to preparing—range fires, monetary collapse, divine retribution, civil war, terrorist attack, meteor collisions. Much of the information has a strong tang of Tea Party and even more extreme right-wing ethos. Utah John Birch Society star Ken Bowers offers a workshop titled “Powers Behind the Thrones” and LDS author Roger K. Smith will speak on “The Sequence of the Events of the Last Days as Outlined in the Scriptures & the Prophesied Future War in America.”